This will be a continuing series of blog posts that exposes the raw ego, naked agony, and rare raptures associated with designing a live action role playing event, The Dreamlands, from scratch. Part I can be read here, and Part II can be read here. I hope this collection of self-reflections serves you as either an inspirational anthem or a cautionary tale of dire warning—it might be both.
Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. –Sun Tzu
I am not clever. I am also lazy and seek the path of least resistance. As a larp designer, that usually spells “C-R-A-P-P-Y-G-A-M-E.” However, I’ve learned a neat trick to cover the tracks of my rampaging simplicity: let the PCs stomp each other.
PvP means “Player versus Player” and is a term that, according to Wikipedia, developed out of the early computer game Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs—the precursors to MMORPGs. In a PvP game, players could attack and kill other players and take their stuff. Why fight the dragon yourself when some other shmuck can burn mana and healing potions in an attempt to wipe out a magnificent creature? Just wait until he limps back to town and grief him (another MUD term) outside the tavern.
PvP is usually contrasted with PvE, or “Player versus Environment,” where players for the most part cooperate to defeat the baddies generated by the plot/programmers/GMs. Most fantasy boffer campaigns are rigidly PvE, though of course there are exceptions, both overall and on occasion.
First, I define PvP literally: one real person is actively trying to damage or ruin the larp experience of another real person. That’s frakked up. The equivalent is someone showing off their new cool homemade boffer sword, and another person breaking it in two. There’s no reason for that except to make the maker upset. I can understand why so many larps have laws forbidding PvP, or, if allowed, have many caveats, precautions, and Plot team permissions. Taken literally, I don’t recommend PvP in any larp event, though perhaps in some of the larp battle sports such as Amtgard, Belegarth, Darkon, or Dagorhir, none of which I have played, PvP might be de rigueur.
Instead, I like to encourage—as I am doing for The Dreamlands—Player WITH Player interactions. The real human beings, the players, should work together to bring about the best experience possible—this experience doesn’t have to be “fun” in the traditional sense (see my “No Fun” article here), but it should be satisfying. I want to support “Player Character versus Player Character” or PC vs. PC.
I have no problem with other characters coming after my character. I would especially appreciate knowing about the target on my back ahead of time, either via my character’s backstory or a moment of metagaming with my nemesis’s player. How much more dramatic would a larp be if you knew your real life BFF’s rogue was gunning for your mage?
I propose the following advantages to a PC vs PC larp:
- Unpredictability, surprises
- Heightened emotions, enhanced experience, strong possibility of bleed
- Additional depth to plot devices/encounters/mods
- Consequences for bad behavior—piss someone off often enough, they’ll frag you
And my favorite as an un-clever and lazy larp designer:
- Players make the plot for you!
I can’t come up with enough mods, crunchies, or puzzles to entertain every player every instant for the duration of the larp, much less execute them all to perfection. Sure, I could recruit additional designers and staff, but we’ll always be outnumbered by the players and therefore, like computer virus protection, defense is always behind the offense. Although not impossible, I think it’s prohibitively difficult for a few designers to keep a group of larpers entertained every second of the event, and I can’t imagine keeping up that level of quality across a campaign. That’s why I prefer to enlist the talents and creativity of the players themselves; with Player With Player and PCvPC, two players can create an amazing plotline that ties with the other threads I spun. Their idea might be something I never would have considered.
Allowing for characters to conflict—and this conflict may range from slander to slaughter—is an intrinsic motivation, generated by the PC herself, and therefore trumps the extrinsic motivations of a “Quest Board” or other mods dropped by Plot to keep PCs entertained. Give the PCs the ability to entertain themselves, even if it means combat between them.
I believe that many interesting moments are lost when characters are forbidden from attacking one another, and I think extremely powerful live action role playing experiences can be heightened if the players work together beforehand or during the larp to at least explain, warn, or perhaps even loosely plan their blood feud. This is how Houses of the Blooded operates, and I think it works quite well. Mind’s Eye Theatre’s Vampire: The Masquerade has made a fortune over fighting PCs.
I think PvE has its share of problems as well, though not nearly as bad as literal PvP.
It’s not an environment that the players are up against; it’s real human beings on the Plot Design team. PvE should literally mean, “The wind blew my tent down.” What we’re really talking about is Players vs GMs, or PvGM (what an annoying abbreviation).
Aside from my personal inability to produce enough Environment to fight 30+ people all day and night, I suspect even those GMs who are genius enough to do so can’t reliably repeat: they get predictable, which potentially leads to familiarity and boredom as plots are repeated with different faces, e.g.: “Oh no! Undead are attacking the town again!” Moreover, a direct Player versus GM conflict can lead to frustration and anger.
I was in the Starship Valkyrie theater-style sci-fi larp campaign for almost three years. My character leveled up from squad commander to Captain of his own ship. In the last few games of the campaign, I deliberately avoided telling the Plot team what I was going to do, where I wanted to go, what kind of mission I wanted to undertake. Why? Because if I told Plot what I wanted to do, I was telling the enemy, the environment, the aliens. Loose lips…
But this caused problems for Plot because they needed to recruit NPCs, build props, etc., for each game. Without input, they were hard pressed to assemble each event. But by giving input, I sabotaged my character’s agency and jeopardized the crew’s safety. Since Starship Valkyrie functions as a cooperative game, my opponent was always, ultimately, the Game Master, and I grew weary of the same lunges, parries, thrusts and dodges. I don’t believe that Players versus GMs, a.k.a. PvE, is always the optimum setup and style for all larps.
- I am not saying that all larps must have (player) Character versus Character elements.
- I am not saying that a larp with character infighting is better than a larp without.
- I am saying I prefer players to work on plots and conflicts together, at least vaguely, and the characters to fight—sometimes to the death—in larps I design. This is merely personal preference.
- I am saying I want The Dreamlands to be a Player with Player with Designer situation, and that I hope some players will decide to try some Character versus Character conflict and even combat. I am not requiring it, but it will spice up the larp and spare me the chore of throwing random encounters at players.
I trust that my players are intelligent, creative humans who can maturely handle infighting between them. This may not be true with your larp group. Sometimes, a line course (railroad plot), with characters forced to cooperate is fine, like at a convention or similar situation where players don’t know one another. Transparency and communication is the skeleton key to avoid emotional injury.
I believe larp is a communal storytelling art form, and it takes a community to tell the best tales. If I want to tell my own story, where my players do what I want, I’ll write a novel.
What do you think? Do you prefer PC-cooperative or PC-competitive larps? Do you talk to other players about conflicts between your characters? If you are a larpwright, do you allow your characters to fight and even possibly kill each other? Why or why not? Comment below.